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Redesigning Expiration Dates to Curb Foodwaste and Enhance Consumer Health

By Tojin T. Eapen

The current expiration date system is based on an uncertain relationship between the quality of a product and the passage of time. This system has potential drawbacks, as it may not accurately reflect the true shelf life of a product and can lead to unnecessary food waste. In this paper, we suggest new approaches to expiration dating that aims to improve consumer health and reduce food waste. One of our proposed solutions involves dividing expiration dates into distinct segments, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of a product's shelf life and enabling a more accurate prediction of when it may no longer be safe to consume. By implementing this segmented expiration dating model, we hope to alleviate some of the issues with the current system.

INTRODUCTION

Expiration dates are an important factor that consumers consider when making purchasing decisions in a variety of product categories, including food, beverages, and medicine [Endnote 1]. In fact, research has shown that a significant percentage of people check expiration dates when buying these types of products. Expiration dates are intended to provide information about the shelf life of a product, and as such, they crudely reflect the relationship between the quality of a product and the passage of time. This information can be useful for consumers in two ways: it can help them gauge the current quality of a product, as well as its potential quality in the future. By understanding the expiration date of a product, consumers can make informed decisions about whether or not to purchase it. However, it is important to note that expiration dates are not always an accurate reflection of a product's true shelf life, and as a result, they may not always provide a reliable guide for consumers. Expiration dates on food products play a significant role in contributing to the problem of food waste, which is a major concern that undermines food security. 

Expiration dates have remained relatively unchanged over the past few decades, despite the fact that they play a significant role in consumer purchasing decisions. The importance of expiration dates varies greatly depending on the product category, and different consumers may place varying levels of emphasis on these dates when making purchasing decisions. The purpose of this paper is to examine the limitations of current expiration dating systems and to consider potential ways in which they could be redesigned. We will also explore the marketing implications of different approaches to redesigning expiration dates. For example, one possibility is to implement dynamic pricing, where the price of a product adjusts based on its expiration date. Another option is to allow for the donation of products after their expiration dates, rather than discarding them. Additionally, we will consider the potential use of coupons linked to expiration dates, such as offering a discount only redeemable after a product's expiration date.

BACKGROUND

Expiration dates are intended to provide information about the shelf life of a product, but they often provide a crude and approximate representation of the complex relationship between product quality and time. This is because the expiration date is often determined during the manufacturing process, based on assumptions about the conditions that the product will encounter during its journey from the manufacturer to the consumer. However, the actual shelf life of a product can be affected by various intermediate factors such as transportation and storage conditions, such as temperature and humidity. As a result, consumers may be misled about the true shelf life of a product by simply examining the expiration date.

There are two types of mismatches that can occur between the expiration date and the actual shelf life of a product. The first is an overestimation of the expiration date, which occurs when the date on the product represents an ideal or average set of conditions that the product is assumed to encounter, but the actual conditions are more adverse. In these cases, the expiration date may overstate the true shelf life of the product, potentially leading to food safety issues for consumers who consume the product close to the expiration date. 

The second type of mismatch is an underestimation of the expiration date, which occurs when the date on the product represents an average or ideal set of conditions, but the actual conditions are more favorable. In these cases, the expiration date may understate the true shelf life of the product, potentially leading to unnecessary food waste. These mismatch between expiration dates and the true shelf life of a product can have important implications for both consumer safety and food waste.

To avoid this, the company may be highly conservative in their dating. They may provide a date that is much earlier that required. In such cases, the risk of wasted food increases, as consumers are unlikely to consume food beyond the indicated expiration dates. This leads to a situation where a deviation from the actual expiration date (if indeed one exists) can lead to either food-safety challenges or food wastage. 

The second issue lies in the myriad of expiration dates with confusing meaning. Best by; Use by; Expiration. There are all terms with specific meaning. However, the terms are highly confusing for the consumer. The third issue is that that different categories are very different in the underlying dynamics of the product quality vs. time relationship. For example, for certain products, there may be no appreciable decline in quality (e.g., taste) over time. In other cases, there may a linear or quadratic relationship (Figures). The knowledge of such dynamic relationships may be important to the consumer, but is not adequately captured using the existing dates.

There are several additional limitations of current expiration dates that can impact both consumer safety and food waste. One issue is that companies may be overly conservative in their dating practices, providing expiration dates that are much earlier than necessary in order to ensure that products are safe to consume. This can lead to a situation where consumers are unlikely to consume products beyond the indicated expiration dates, potentially resulting in unnecessary food waste.

Another issue with expiration dates is the confusion that can arise due to the various terms that are used to indicate expiration dates, such as "best by," "use by," and "expiration." These terms can have specific meanings, but they can be confusing for consumers, making it difficult for them to accurately interpret expiration dates.

Finally, the relationship between product quality and time can vary significantly depending on the product category. For some products, there may be no appreciable decline in quality over time, while for others, there may be a linear or quadratic relationship. This dynamic relationship may be important for consumers to understand, but it is not adequately captured using the current expiration date system. 

Manufacturer Incentives

Manufacturers may be inclined to provide conservative expiration dates for two main reasons. Firstly, the shelf life of a product can be affected by factors beyond the control of the manufacturer, such as transportation and storage conditions. In order to avoid potential liability for any problems that may arise due to a faulty product, manufacturers may be inclined to provide expiration dates that are much earlier than necessary in order to ensure that the product is safe to consume.

Manufacturers may also have an incentive to provide conservative expiration dates in order to increase demand for their products. By providing expiration dates that are much earlier than necessary, manufacturers can encourage consumers to purchase their products before they expire, which can potentially increase sales. However, this approach can also contribute to food waste, as consumers may be more likely to dispose of products that are approaching their expiration dates.

Secondly, it is possible that longer expiration dates may result in lower sales for a product. This is because consumers may be less likely to purchase products that have expiration dates that are far in the future, as they may perceive these products as being less fresh or less desirable. In order to avoid potential declines in sales, manufacturers may be inclined to provide more conservative expiration dates in order to encourage consumers to purchase the product before it expires.

Types of Expiration Dates

Expired food can be spoiled and can present potential health concerns if it is consumed. However, it is important to note that different types of expiration dates have different meanings and are intended for different audiences. "Use by" and "best by" dates are intended for the consumer and indicate the freshness of a product, but they do not necessarily indicate that the food will be spoiled beyond these dates. Most consumers associate these dates with spoilage and safety, however, and may be less likely to consume the product beyond these dates. In contrast, "sell by" dates are only intended for retailers and do not provide information about the freshness or safety of a product for the consumer.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has published a report on expiration dates, known as the "Dating Game," which examines the limitations of current expiration dating systems and proposes potential solutions. The report highlights the confusion that can arise for consumers due to the many different types of expiration dates that are used by manufacturers and the lack of consistent definitions and regulations.

In response to these concerns, a federal bill has been proposed in the United States to make expiration dates less confusing for consumers. The proposed bill suggests using the terms "BEST if Used By" and "USE By" for expiration dates, with the first indicating the quality of the product and the second indicating products that pose a safety risk if consumed after the date. The Food Labeling Act of 2016, introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Chellie Pingree on May 18, 2016, also addresses the issue of expiration dates and proposes changes to the current labeling system.

Sell-by dates are mandatory in Europe but are not required in the United States. The history of expiration dates traces back to the 1970s, although there is speculation that Al Capone may have introduced expiration dates on milk when one of his family members became sick after consuming spoiled milk.

Regulation

Expiration dates for most products, except for infant formula, are largely unregulated in many countries. This lack of regulation can contribute to the limitations of current expiration dating systems, as it leaves manufacturers free to use their own discretion when determining expiration dates. As a result, different manufacturers may use different approaches to expiration dating, leading to confusion and inconsistency for consumers. There are several different types of expiration dates that are used by manufacturers (based on Labuza 2003 and Szybist and Labuza 1999). These dates may be worded differently in order to avoid running afoul of regulations, as pointed out by Labuza (2003).

Rethinking Expiration Dates

There have been several efforts to rethink and redesign expiration dates in order to address the limitations of the current system and to improve consumer safety and reduce food waste. In the United States, legislation has been proposed that would change the labeling of expiration dates to make them clearer and more easily understood by consumers. One suggestion is the use of the term "best if used by" rather than "expiration" or "use by." This approach has been proposed by researchers such as Wasnik and Wright (2006) and Wilson et al. (2019).

Another approach that has been suggested is the use of dual expiration dates, which involves providing two different expiration dates for a product: one that reflects the product's quality when stored under ideal conditions, and another that reflects the product's quality when stored under less favorable conditions. This approach has been proposed in India and has the potential to reduce food waste by providing consumers with more accurate and nuanced information about the shelf life of a product. The concept of dual expiration dates has been the subject of discussion in various forums and was even the subject of a court case.

Impact on Food Waste and Consumer Health

One of the primary limitations of current expiration dates is their potential impact on food safety and waste. Let's take a can of tuna as an example. Expiration dates are intended to provide information about the shelf life of a product, and as such, they are intended to ensure that consumers are aware of when a product may no longer be safe to consume. However, it is often difficult to accurately predict the shelf life of a product, and as a result, expiration dates may not always provide a reliable guide for consumers. This can lead to situations where products are discarded before they have actually reached the end of their shelf life, potentially leading to unnecessary food waste. 

In addition to the potential impact on food waste, expiration dates can also have important implications for consumer safety. If a product is consumed after its expiration date, there is a risk that it may no longer be safe to eat or drink. This can be particularly concerning for products like medications, where consuming an expired product could have serious health consequences.

Customer Confusion and Food Waste

Expiration dates are intended to provide information about the shelf life of a product, but they often represent an uncertain relationship between shelf life (or food quality) and time. This is because the expiration date is often determined during the manufacturing process, based on assumptions about the conditions that the product will encounter during its journey from the manufacturer to the consumer. However, the actual shelf life of a product can be affected by various intermediate factors such as transportation and storage conditions, such as temperature and humidity. As a result, consumers may be misled about the true shelf life of a product by simply examining the expiration date. 

Expiration dates can cause confusion for consumers when making choices about what food to buy and consume. Retailers are aware of this and use stock rotation, where they place the newer products at the front of the shelf and older products at the back, to encourage consumers to choose the newer products. This can lead to the unnecessary waste of perfectly good food that is approaching or has passed its expiration date.

Consumers may also be uncertain about how to handle expiration dates when consuming food at home. They may throw away products after the "best before" date, even if the food is still safe to eat, because they are not sure if it is still good or not. They may also be unsure if they can extend the shelf life of a product by freezing it. This uncertainty can contribute to food waste.

One potential solution to the confusion around expiration dates is the use of sensors that can detect when food is no longer safe to eat. These sensors could be placed on food packaging and display a message such as "Use by XXXX-XX-XX, unless tag turns red" to indicate the expiration date. If the food is still safe to eat after the expiration date, the sensor would remain green. However, if the food has gone bad or is no longer safe to consume, the sensor would turn red, alerting the consumer not to eat the food.

Summary of Key Limitations

There are several key limitations and concerns current expiration dates that can impact both consumer safety and food waste. Such limitiation hamper the identification of an optimal solution to this problem. These limitations include:
  1. The expiration date is static rather than dynamic, meaning that it does not change over time despite the potential for changes in product quality.
  2. Expiration dates are often presented as a single hard date, rather than a range or segmented approach that could provide more nuanced information about product shelf life.
  3. There is confusion between similar dates and what they stand for, making it difficult for consumers to accurately interpret expiration dates.
  4. The expiration date is typically determined well in advance of the product's actual shelf life, which can lead to mismatches between the date and the true shelf life of the product.
  5. The dynamics of product quality can differ greatly depending on the product category, making it difficult to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to expiration dating.
  6. The impact of poor expiration dating design can vary greatly depending on the product category, with some products posing greater risks to consumer safety than others.
  7. Consumers can differ in their knowledge and importance of expiration dates, which can impact their purchasing decisions and the overall effectiveness of expiration dating.
  8. Companies may have different incentives when it comes to expiration dating, which can impact their decision-making and the information they provide to consumers.
  9. There may be regulatory challenges that impact the design and implementation of expiration dating systems.
  10. Expiration dates can be linked to the marketing mix, with implications for pricing, promotion, and other marketing strategies.
  11. Different product categories may have different levels of significance and implications for shelf life, requiring different approaches to expiration dating.
  12. Packaging can influence the shelf life of a product, and this should be taken into consideration when designing expiration dating systems.
  13. The storage conditions in retail settings can impact the shelf life of a product, and this should be considered when determining expiration dates.
  14. Post-purchase transportation and handling of products can also impact their shelf life, and this should be accounted for in expiration dating systems.
  15. Display and inventory strategies based on shelf life can help to minimize food waste and optimize product availability for consumers.
  16. Household storage and handling practices can also impact the shelf life of a product, and this should be taken into consideration when designing expiration dating systems.
  17. Household consumption patterns and expiration dates can also impact food waste, and this should be considered when designing expiration dating systems.
  18. The disposal and donation of expired food can also have important implications for food waste, and this should be taken into consideration when designing expiration dating systems.
These limitations of existing expiration dates highlight the need for a more nuanced and effective approach to expiration dating that can better serve the needs of consumers and help to reduce food waste.

Expiration dates are not required for most food products, except for infant formula. This is surprising, given that confusion over expiration dates plays a significant role in food waste. Different countries and regions have different standards or norms for expiration dates, such as "best before," "use by," "born on," and "expiration," which can be confusing for consumers. In some cases, only a production date is provided, which can make it difficult for consumers to determine how long a product will remain fresh or safe to eat.

Labels with expiration dates are not an exact science, as the shelf life of a food product can depend on various factors such as storage conditions, temperature, and handling. This can make it difficult for consumers to accurately determine when a product has gone bad or is no longer safe to eat. Despite the importance of expiration dates in reducing food waste, there has been little interest in redesigning the way expiration dates are displayed on labels to make them more clear and easy for consumers to understand.

In this paper, the we are interested in looking at the problem of expiration dates from the perspective of the marketing mix (product, packaging, price, promotion, placement) and considering how this problem may be solved in the context of a circular economy. A circular economy is an economic system that is designed to eliminate waste and promote the continuous use of resources, rather than the traditional linear model of consumption and disposal. By examining the problem of expiration dates through the lens of the marketing mix, the authors aim to identify potential solutions that could help to reduce food waste and promote a more sustainable and circular economy.

KEY CONCERNS IN DESIGNING A SOLUTION

To identify solutions for the problem of expiration dates and food waste, it is important to consider the underlying issues that contribute to this problem. 

First key issue is that different foods spoil in different ways. Some foods, such as honey and rice, can last for a long time if they are properly stored. However, for most foods, the quality deteriorates over time as they age. To effectively address this issue, it is important to recognize that different food categories have different characteristics when it comes to spoilage. For example, perishable foods like dairy products and meats have a much shorter shelf life than non-perishable foods like grains and canned goods. By understanding the unique characteristics of different types of food, it may be possible to develop more targeted ways to improve expiration dating and reduce food waste.

Second, the way that a product is manufactured and packed can significantly impact its shelf life. For example, canned food is able to last for a long time due to the canning process, which involves sealing the food in an airtight container and heating it to a high temperature to kill any bacteria that may be present. This process helps to preserve the food and prevent spoilage. However, the type of food being canned can also influence its shelf life. Foods with a high acidic content, such as tomatoes or fruit, can cause the metal in the cans to corrode over time, which can affect the quality of the food. On the other hand, non-acidic foods, such as vegetables or meats, are less likely to cause this issue and may have a longer shelf life when canned.

Third, the shelf life of a product is affected by several factors, including the manufacturing, distribution, and transportation process. The "cold chain" refers to the temperature at which a product must be kept in order to maintain its quality and safety. The expiration date is often based on the conditions in which the product was manufactured and packaged, but similar products may encounter different conditions during distribution and transportation. For example, one batch may be transported in dry conditions, while another may be transported in humid conditions. 

Fourth, the storage conditions at the retailer can also impact the shelf life of a product, such as the temperature of the store.

Fifth, expiration dates can also influence consumer choice. Consumers may make wrong choices if they misread the label or purchase more products than they can consume within the expiration date. Additionally, consumers may be confused by the expiration date and how it relates to the quality and safety of the product.

Sixth, the shelf life of a product can also be affected by transportation by the end consumer. For example, the shelf life of frozen food may be impacted by the distance from the consumer's home, as well as the season (e.g. summer vs. winter). The "use by" date on products transported using the cold chain is problematic because it is based on assumptions about the transportation of the product, which may not always be met (Labuza 2003).

Finally, the consumption patterns of the consumer can also impact the shelf life of a product. For example, how the food is stored in the refrigerator, and how the consumer integrates the expiration date into meal planning and household food consumption can all affect the shelf life of a product. A consumer may decide to eat or consume food closer to the expiration date, or may forget about food stored in the refrigerator. There is the possibility of using technology to help consumers make better choices by integrating knowledge about the product's expiration date and shelf life with other products. Additionally, there may be cross-cultural differences in perceptions of expiration dates.

To summarize, food waste can result from poor consumer or marketing actions related to any of the factors discussed above. There are relatively simple solutions that address these individual steps, such as stores that only sell expired produce or donating expired products. One idea that has been proposed is pricing based on expiration date, or using dynamic expiration dates based on the actual product quality. Is there an incentive for companies and marketers to provide better and clearer expiration dates? If so, how should products and expiration dates be designed to benefit both the firm and consumers, resulting in less waste?

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

In order to address the issues related to expiration dates and food waste, we have identified a potential pool of solutions that range from simple to technologically complex.
  • Elimination of expiration dates: Given the inexact nature of expiration dates, it may be possible to eliminate them and instead rely on sight or smell as indicators of spoilage. This solution is relatively simple to implement, but may not be reliable in all cases.
  • Dynamic expiration dates using sensors: Sensors can be used to monitor and measure indicators of actual spoilage, and adjust the expiration date accordingly. However, these sensors can be expensive (Kusanwadi 2017), and may not be practical for all products.
  • Expiration date based on product journey: The expiration date could be based on the journey of the product, taking into account the conditions it has been exposed to during manufacturing, distribution, and transportation.
  • Pricing based on expiration: Products could be priced based on their expiration date, with products that are closer to their expiration date being sold at a lower price.
  • Promotions based on expiration dates: Promotions could be offered for products that are closer to their expiration date, in order to encourage consumers to purchase and consume them before they expire.
  • Segmented expiration dates: Products could have two expiration dates - a "best-before" date and a "use-by" date. The "best-before" date would indicate the point at which the product's quality may start to decline, while the "use-by" date would indicate the point at which the product should be consumed for safety reasons. This solution would provide more clarity for consumers and help to reduce food waste.
  • Expiration date-based meal planning and inventory management involves using expiration dates to plan meals and manage food inventory in order to reduce waste. This strategy can be used by dining services at colleges, restaurants, and homes.
  • One way that retailers can improve the shopping experience for customers and reduce waste is to coordinate between different product categories. For example, an app could suggest recipes and ingredients to reduce waste during the purchase process. This app could also incorporate information about products that the consumer already has at home, helping them to plan meals and avoid purchasing duplicates.

END NOTES

  1. Shelf life refers to the length of time that a product can be stored before it begins to degrade or expire. This can be affected by a variety of factors, including the type of product, the storage conditions, and the packaging. The shelf life of a product can be an important consideration for both consumers and producers, as it can impact the quality and safety of the product. Expiration date, on the other hand, refers to the specific point in time at which a product is no longer considered safe or suitable for use. This date is often printed on the packaging of a product and is intended to provide consumers with information about when the product should be used or discarded. There are several different terms that are commonly used to indicate expiration dates, including "best before," "use by," and "sell by." These terms can have different meanings and implications depending on the context in which they are used. In addition to their general usage, the terms "expiration" and "expiry" can also have a more specific legal meaning in certain contexts. For example, expiration dates may be required by law for certain types of products, such as food or medication, in order to ensure that consumers are aware of when a product may no longer be safe to consume. In these cases, expiration dates may be determined based on factors such as product testing, shelf life studies, and other data sources.

FURTHER READING

  • https://www.nhs.uk/news/food-and-diet/public-urged-to-not-ignore-use-by-dates/
  • https://healthland.time.com/2013/09/18/is-your-food-expired-dont-be-so-quick-to-toss-it/
  • https://healthland.time.com/2013/09/18/is-your-food-expired-dont-be-so-quick-to-toss-it/
  • https://www.chlpi.org/senator-blumenthal-and-representative-pingree-introduce-companion-bills-to-standardize-date-labels/
  • https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/sell-and-best-dates-food-are-basically-made-hard-get-rid-180950304/
  • https://www.nrdc.org/media/2013/130918
  • https://www.chlpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Consumer-Perceptions-on-Date-Labels_May-2016.pdf
  • https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/confused-date-labels-packaged-foods
  • https://notreallyexpired.com/resources/
  • https://www.fssai.gov.in/cms/food-safety-and-standards-regulations.php; https://www.fssai.gov.in/upload/uploadfiles/files/Packaging_Labelling_Regulations.pdf
  • https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/foodkeeper-app
  • https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/food-packs-may-have-expiry-dates-discounts-likely/articleshow/70651394.cms
  • https://indiankanoon.org/doc/76504597/

REFERENCES

  1. Aschemann-Witzel, J. (2018). Consumer perception and preference for suboptimal food under the emerging practice of expiration date based pricing in supermarkets. Food Quality and Preference, 63, 119-128.
  2. Block, L. G., Keller, P. A., Vallen, B., Williamson, S., Birau, M. M., Grinstein, A., Haws, K. L., et al. (2016). The squander sequence: understanding food waste at each stage of the consumer decision-making process. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 35(2), 292-304.
  3. Brown, Peter. "Shelf life expiration date management." U.S. Patent 9,208,520, issued December 8, 2015.
  4. Hall-Phillips, Adrienne, and Purvi Shah. "Unclarity confusion and expiration date labels in the United States: A consumer perspective." Journal of retailing and consumer services 35 (2017): 118-126.
  5. Harcar, Talha, and Fahri Karakaya. "A cross‐cultural exploration of attitudes toward product expiration dates." Psychology & Marketing 22, no. 4 (2005): 353-371.
  6. Kuswandi, B. (2017). Freshness sensors for food packaging. In Reference Module in Food Science.
  7. Labuza, T., Belina, D., & Diez, F. (2003). Food safety management in the cold chain through expiration dating. In 1st international workshop on cold chain management (pp. University of Bonn, Germany).
  8. Labuza, Theodore P., Lynn M. Szybist, and Joann Peck. Perishable refrigerated products and home practices survey. No. 1710-2016-140005. 2001.
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